Brinda Somaya is the Principal Architect & Managing Director of Somaya & Kalappa Consultants based in Mumbai, India. She has been involved with the LafargeHolcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction since 2014, when she was a member of the Awards jury for Asia Pacific. She became a member of the Board of the Foundation in January 2017. Hashim Sarkis is the Dean of the School of Architecture & Planning at the MIT and the Principal of Hashim Sarkis Studios based in Cambridge, USA, and Beirut, Lebanon. He headed the LafargeHolcim Awards jury for Africa Middle East in 2011 and was a member of the Global Awards jury in 2018. He was also recently appointed curator of the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale and will head the Global LafargeHolcim Awards jury in 2021. Both of them share their experience and views on the awards competition.
Interview with Brinda Somaya & Hashim Sarkis by Andrew Ayers
L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui: Why do you feel the LafargeHolcim Awards for Sustainable Construction are important?
Brinda Somaya (pictured left): So many architecture competitions today have pre-qualifications – fame of the entrants, building types, a certain size and/or budget – that eliminate talented young creative people. But the LafargeHolcim Awards do the complete opposite – absolutely everybody can enter. And you don’t even have to present a built project – it can be ideas, it can be thoughts. And I think this is very important for young architects today, because architecture is a very difficult, slow-moving profession, and so for individuals to build up a portfolio of work takes decades and decades. The LafargeHolcim Awards are unique in allowing ideas to come in from very young people so fast and so soon. The second thing I feel is very unique about these awards is that they are not restrictive: they cover all types of works as long as they can be considered sustainable. So we’re talking work connected with water, work connected with soil, work connected with building practices, work connected with wind, work connected with sun – everything! And so many different types of solutions are put before the jury. It’s really inclusive. I was recently in Cairo with the LafargeHolcim Foundation, and the Forum I attended welcomed people from 55 different countries and every type of background connected with building and sustainability. So it’s very, very good to have these sort of awards and competitions.
Hashim Sarkis (pictured left): Every award brings with it its own set of values to highlight and promote. The LafargeHolcim Awards are helping to highlight the importance of taking on the question of sustainability without having a predetermined set of answers or values that they are promoting. This is the strength of the awards in relation to the profession – they are helping promote a new set of concerns in the profession without imposing one of them as being the solution. These awards embrace the incremental and iterative approach of architecture.
AA: What were your experiences as jury members?
HS: The award process was very well organised and vetted. It gave the jurors all the time to consider the content. There is hardly any other jury or award I have been on that uses the discussion around every project to rethink the terms of the award. In that sense it parallels the common-law approach, where every case could potentially redefine the basis of the idea of sustainability.
BS: The quality of the jury, the geographical bandwidth of the entrants chosen, the credibility of the organisation and the non-interference with any decision we take make the competition very independent and credible. Since so many different types of projects are submitted for consideration by the jury, it can sometimes be difficult for the jurors, because obviously you’re not comparing apples to apples. So you have to look for something special within the entry as to why it should win, what there is about it that’s unique.
AA: What do you think the LafargeHolcim Awards bring to practices taking part in the competition?
HS: I think the scale, visibility, level of scrutiny and rigour of the competition give a strong legitimacy to the winners. And it also gives them licence to continue to experiment and to innovate rather than to rest on their laurels, which is usually the impact of such a level of recognition.
BS: I think there’s not one single answer to your question, and that’s another one of the reasons why I like these awards so much. For instance, at the latest global jury in Zurich, the first-prize winner was a Mexican group of architects who had done an amazing water-related project in the heart of Mexico City. And I heard that they put all the prize money back into that project. We gave one of the prizes to a project in Niger by two women who had done a wonderful community centre and a mosque together, and I remember really pushing it because I loved the project. And I heard that they gave some of the prize money back to that village. That’s another thing that’s unique – these are not necessarily completed projects, they’re often ongoing. So what the award does for these projects is that it helps support them financially, it gives them credibility and publicity, people begin to hear about them, and so they believe in them and that really helps them to move on. Also I think that today, when there are so many good awards, they can hugely impact a young person’s career. You could perhaps argue that there are too many awards out there at the moment. For me, an award must not become a commercial venture – unlike LafargeHolcim, many award organisers charge fees to enter – because it has to be something that is for your ability to excel in the profession that you are following because you’re passionate about it. That’s exactly what the LafargeHolcim Awards do, and I think people are smart enough today to know which are the truly valuable and meaningful awards.
AA: What have you learned from the experience of being involved with the LafargeHolcim Foundation?
HS: The exposure I had to very sharp minds thinking about the issues of our times was a truly memorable experience that stayed with me. The sense that we are in it together created a feeling of collegiality among the architects on the jury and the architects being considered for the awards. That made me feel that my practice belonged to a community of interests across the world. I continue to reflect on the ideas I discussed with my colleagues on the jury, and these will surely have an influence on my future work.
BS: I work a lot in sustainable construction myself, so I think that’s why I was invited to be a juror. As Hashim said, it was a great learning experience to be exposed to so many different ideas and discussions. Given the quality of the projects I saw, I came away with a lot of hope for the future.
LafargeHolcim Awards open for entries
Design competitions boost projects, careers, and networking opportunities. The LafargeHolcim Awards seeks leading projects of professionals as well as bold ideas from the Next Generation that combine sustainable construction solutions with architectural excellence.
The 6th cycle of the international competition is open for entries until February 25, 2020. The Awards offer a total of USD 2 million in prize money and foreground projects and concepts from architecture, engineering, urban planning, materials and construction technology, and related fields. Enter your contribution to sustainable construction in the LafargeHolcim Awards – the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.